Sam Vimes was Susan’s first student to come with his own security detail. Susan, if she had thought about this, might have found it a little surprising. She had been at Frout Academy for eight years, and was an excellent teacher, in the way that love is a great teacher—that is, pitiless, and likely to result in more children at the end of it than you had when you began. In eight years she had seen many shades of desperation, from the gutter on up.
But there was only one class of parents in Ankh-Morpork more reluctant to admit that their children might need the tutelage of an eerie, white-haired miracle-worker than the Cockbill Street poor, and that was the city’s uppermost. Lords preferred to keep their wonkier spawn on country estates or in politics, and did not think much of the rejuvenative powers of algebra. Ladies, it was well known, could not spot wonky in their own children with a ten-foot run-up and a mechanized detector of weird. So the shortage of bodyguards attached to child-sized desks might after all have been considered the natural order of things, with the break being what was unusual.
Sybil Vimes did not strike Susan as extraordinarily harried. “Sorry about this,” she said, ducking under the doorway of Susan’s classroom to protect her crown of chestnut curls. Her offspring she had firmly by the paw. “I know it must seem a lot of to-do. I’m afraid,” she continued, with a touch of asperity, “his father is unreconciled with the notion that he may one day leave the nest. For any reason, whatsoever, at all.”
“Also There Were Two Attempted Kidnappings This Summer,” said Sam Vimes’ security detail, ducking less successfully after his charge. Any hairs the Duchess might have left attached to the lintel were knocked free, along with a healthy chunk of plaster. His eyes glowed.
“Two alleged attempted kidnappings,” said Lady Sybil, “one of which was definitely staged for my benefit, because I saw him pay the accused afterwards, Dorfl.”
Susan smiled pleasantly at Dorfl, and then at the object of dispute, who looked up at her with serious eyes and then immediately looked down again. Sam—or Young Sam, as his mother and even his guard golem had thusfar exclusively referred to him—was a small sturdy boy with vague hair but a precise glance, and he resembled Lady Sybil less in any geographical feature than in his air of slightly bashful calm. Not that Sybil was behaving very bashfully at the moment. “Hello, Sam,” said Susan, while Duchess and watchman went off on a spirited tangent about someone named Larger-Than-Small-Erwin and the destructive potential of a half-brick in a sock.
“—and as for the other, you can’t tell me that a monk with a begging bowl must have been out on an abduction mission just because—”
Sam mumbled something.
“What was that?” said Susan. She rose and walked around the desk, bending a little when she had reached him so that they were closer to, but not quite at, eye-level.
“—nice to meet you, Miss Susan,” said Sam, more clearly. He lifted his chin.
Time stopped. Not in the literal and unromantic sense common to Susan's life, which if mapped chronologically would have looked like one of those graphs that tells you absolutely nothing about anything except the psychology of the grapher, and had none of the organizational advantages of people who really did have to live in the moment. Rather, Susan looked at Sam and felt the world slow. She slowed along with it. He seemed to fracture in her vision, color leaking from his outline until he was translucent, piecemeal, and edged in a familiar red-blue haze.
When she blinked it was gone. “Miss Susan?” said Lady Sybil, and Susan wondered, briefly, what expression must have crossed her face.
“I'm sorry,” she said. “You were saying?”
Lady Sybil looked at her in a sharper way than Susan was accustomed to being looked at. All she said, however, was, “Are there any other forms to be filled out?”, and for the rest of the time left before class began Susan gratefully devoted herself to explaining the paperwork.
Not counting Jason, whose security had all been for other people.
A woman named Mildred Easy once came to Susan’s office at midnight, dressed in the uniform of a janitor who, it eventually came to light, she had clubbed with a broom and stuffed in the supplies closet. Susan rather liked the janitor, and was at first inclined to be irritated by Mrs. Easy’s suit, but a little conversation made it clear that the woman was quite convinced of the necessity of her actions because, she said, “if anyone knew I was here, they’d think I was looking for charity.” Was she? Susan asked. No, said Mrs. Easy: she was seeking a scholarship. “I believe the Assassins’ Guild takes graduate students,” Susan said, peeling back one of the janitor’s eyelids with concern, but since this remark frightened Mrs. Easy more than it inspired her to explore new professional vistas she found herself taking pity. Further conversation revealed that the scholarship was to be awarded to Mrs. Easy's niece, for her talent for sitting quiet and still for up to four hours at a time while staring at lizards. Susan immediately offered to fund her way through the class personally: such a child, she said, was a close-lipped mollusc beyond price.
Susan had single-handedly saved Frout Academy from shrinking enrollment rates and a centerless infrastructure, but she was a blight at Career Fair.
Afterwards she called on Lobsang.
“What's up?” he said, congealing next to her. There was no other word for it. Well, no: there were other words for it, but they were all even more embarrassing, and Susan had no patience for that sort of thing. She'd been sitting on the rim of a fountain in a public but abandoned square, and not even the birds looked up when he appeared, pigeons being notoriously indifferent to the ravages of Time when not actively helping them along. He was wearing his white sweeper's robe. Across the folds at his waist the whiteness of it drifted like clouds.
They had known each other some seven years, by then. Still (thought Susan) there was something to be said for the thrill of surprise that ran up her arms at his presence, like putting your hands back in cool water after long exposure to the air.
“There's a boy in my class who shouldn't exist,” she told him bluntly.
“Well, that's a bit of a stumper,” said Lobsang, after a moment's silence. “Not Jason?”
“Jason graduated,” said Susan.
“Yes, he does,” said Lobsang, then shook his head as if trying to get tenses out of his ears. “Excuse me. What?”
Susan found it surprisingly difficult to explain, now that she had to. “He looks like—it's as if he's been patched together from multiple timelines.” She leaned forward over the pool of the fountain, resting her hands on the stone lip, and stared at its frozen contents in a pensive manner she would not have approved of had she watched someone else doing it. “He looks a bit like the clock, actually.”
Lobsang's eyebrows rose. “The clock?”
His expression became distant. “What's his name?” he said, and then, irritatingly, “Oh, Young Sam.” She looked at him. He made an apologetic noise. “Feel free to tell me,” he said.
“If you'd like to meet him,” Susan began, but Lobsang had already disappeared.
He'd been doing that more often lately. Vanishing mid-conversation, or getting out of whack with her subjective timestream, lost in the eddies and movement of local chronology, which in Ankh-Morpork could behave more like a cataract than a stream: and be as blinding. She waited for him, because it came easily to her, and because it was a nice day out—cold and grey, but that appealed to Susan, and the breeze was up. If she tried very hard she could smell something that wasn't the city but a bitter afterthought of the sea. She drew her scarf close around her throat and thought about Sam.
His first class had been uneventful, aside from the first few minutes of distraction Dorfl provided. The veteran students had seen golems before, naturally: she'd taken them to witness the unearthing of the Umnian golems, from the discreet distance of two hundred feet in the air, and also to interview some of the great old messengers of Thut, mostly because Susan thought it was good practice to learn how to ask questions of someone who would answer them completely literally while still having quite interesting things to say, if you didn't mind a lot of description of underwater scenery. It encouraged exact language. Dorfl was rather more in the mold of the priests of Thut than the angels, being argumentative and crumbling around the edges, but that only endeared him to her charges. Sam himself had seemed pleased, if puzzled, by the secondhand attention this garnered him; he wasn't, she suspected, used to being the center of a crowd. Well, he'd have to learn sooner or later, with parents like his. Except...
Except she didn't know whether there would be a later. She'd never seen anyone who looked so much like human glassware, caught in the instant of its shattering. Imp y Celyn, before his untimely cart crash and untimelier career as a fry cook, had walked around with a similarly insubstantial air, but at least in his case there hadn't been that impression of a life held together by a cartoonish disbelief in gravity. Mainly because his life was already over, his body plummeting off the cartoon cliff and into music, but—
Lobsang reappeared with a crackle. “You were right,” he said, so seriously she didn't bother to ask why, if he was going to pop off like an interdimensional rocket, he couldn't have brought her along.
“He shouldn't exist?” she said.
“Not that,” said Lobsang. “Well, maybe. But he was born on the day the clock stopped.”
It wasn't as simple as that, of course. It never is. There was a complicated story about a revolution that had happened thirty years ago, Commander Vimes going back in time to replace his past mentor, and a stopgap job done by Lu-Tze to save Vimes' sanity and reroute history in the event. Susan quickly grew bored with the sheer quantity of heroic idiocies and significant floral arrangements involved, although Lobsang seemed to take some relish in the details of his own former mentor's handling; but the upshot was that Vimes had been left with a memory of a doctor he would not otherwise have known. A doctor he then sought out when his son proved to be a difficult delivery.
“Why is it always the births?” Susan wondered aloud, and Lobsang laughed at her. It was all very well for him: the only important birth he'd ever had to participate in was his own. In her considered opinion, if someone had to talk to a midwife every time anybody needed saving, he could damn well take his half, and coo over the souvenirs bequeathed onto the midwife by her small militia of an extended family, too. Nevertheless she ended up going to observe Sybil's labor pains alone, because, as Lobsang firmly observed, Young Sam's birthday was the one day in all of eternity that it was best for him not to mess around with too much. Not a second time. A likely excuse, thought Susan sarcastically, although she was aware that it was in fact a likely excuse and had the additional benefit of being true. Susan was a complicated person.
She did not feel like an anything person climbing the stairs of the Ramkin family manor, seven years in the immediate past, but that was because the watchmen hurrying up and down them treated her as if she was invisible. In their view schoolteachers had no business at the scene of a birth—“would that reality saw it that way,” Susan muttered to herself, and went totally unheard by three dwarves who nearly tripped over her boots. Chastised, she made herself slightly less solid, and went on.
When she got to the landing Sybil was screaming at the doctor. Susan listened at the closed door for a minute, tracking the intensity and duration of the cries, and then took a deep breath.
In the scope of her vision there were cracks everywhere. Today was the worst day in history, not because of pain inflicted or beauty ruined but because history, today, had creaked to a viscid halt, and only just resumed. Susan could see where timeline jostled timeline, tick-tonic plates rubbing shoulders beneath soon-to-be mountains, the whole world a sputtering possibility of displaced earth. The breaks were very bright. They whorled around Sybil, visible through woodwork and stone, and Susan grabbed the nearest line and followed it into the dark.
It was a long way. She found herself, eventually, at the end of the fissure, its ragged lip gleaming like silk under her hand. She was underground, she thought. Somewhere she could hear water.
There was also Vimes, crawling along the lightless floor like a legless sleepwalker. He was following the progress of the bioluminescent creatures on the cave's distant roof. Susan stared at him for a moment. She had seen him before, at a distance and in iconographs, but she wasn't sure she would have recognized him without key contextual clues. His face was smeary with blood and he most closely resembled a drowned rat that had decided to take revenge on dry land for abandoning it. His knees left sluggish trails in the sand. If she focused, she could hear one thought, roiling along the curve of his mind, like the last mantra of a dying man—where's my cow?
Susan walked ahead. A little ways deeper, and she found her grandfather, sitting on a beach chair with a spotlight on him and a book in one fleshless hand.
“I should have known I'd find you here,” she said resignedly, and realized as she said it that it was true. Where else would he have been? She folded her arms and he smiled at her in his helpless way.
I HAVE TO ADMIT, he said, I WASN'T EXPECTING YOU. IS THERE SOMETHING I CAN HELP YOU WITH?
“Maybe,” said Susan. “What are you reading?”
IT'S A MYSTERY, said Death.
“Well, if you're going to be like that—”
THE BOOK. IT ADVERTISES ITSELF AS AN ENIGMA. DO YOU WISH TO KNOW THE SECRET?
Susan looked at him for a while without answering.
TAKE IT, Death suggested, and patted her on the shoulder. After a lifetime of awkward proximity she was used to the faint crackle of anthropomorphic bone, but she still observed his movements with reasonless concern. Lately, she'd been having nightmares about finding him disassembled and silent on a stormy mountaintop, or in the fields outside his house: bones scattered among the stalks, and wheat growing through the eyes of his skull. She supposed it was a good sign that she was human enough for nonsensical dreams about fears without root or hope of growth, but mostly they just irritated her—she had never been especially adept at dealing with terror, except by anger, and there was nothing to be angry at in the fields except soil, and stem, and the broken line of his ribcage. Her grandfather.
She took the book. It flopped a little sadly in her hands: like all books, it knew when it had met a reader outside its genre. “Well,” she said, “thank you, I suppose,” and when she looked up from the cover the caves and he were gone, and she was standing in her flat, her shadow marked faintly on the wall. By the light, some two hours and seven years had passed since she'd listened to Dr. Lawn slide tongs into a place where tongs should never be slid.
She turned to the last page. Or rather, the penultimate page—someone had torn the last page out and written something in its place on the inside cover. It said, in familiar Gothic script: THE BUTLER DID IT.
Like their tectonic counterparts, but more wibbly-wobbly.
The Vimes' butler was named Willikins, and when Susan came to see him he was sharpening a corkscrew. “Do those need sharpening?” said Susan, doubtfully, after introducing herself to his politely bemused eyebrows.
“Everything needs sharpening, miss,” said Willikins, which was an attitude Susan approved of, on the whole, but found unnerving in men who dressed like penguins. She watched the point go up and down on the specially-shaped whetstone.
After a few minutes of polite conversation, it became clear that Willikins thought she was there because she was under the impression that Sam's parents left the childrearing business to the help, and was trying, gently, to steer her to the realization that the Vimeses were quite doting, if terrifying. Since she herself was less gently trying to probe him for information about Sam's relationship with the fabric of reality, they were talking somewhat at cross-purposes.
“What does Sam do for fun?” she finally asked, and was regaled with stories about the various healthful activities Sam and his father did together (fishing for eldritch horrors in the Ankh, upturning country legal systems, tiddly-winks); the pains Sybil had taken to make sure that Sam could safely but engagingly observe her work at the Sunshine Sanctuary, down to and including a miniature suit of padded armor and a colorful plastic bucket kept on hand at all times in case of his being set fire to; the occasions on which Vimes had stopped traffic in the city in order to get home to Sam and read his bedtime story by the appointed hour. Susan, who had a low opinion of government officials using their employees to disrupt the flow of trade for their own benefit, was so irritated by this last set of anecdotes that she almost didn't catch what he said next.
“...a rather charming book I recommended myself, called Where's My Cow...”
“Excuse me,” said Susan. “Where's My Cow, did you say?”
Willikins' benevolent blue eyes regarded her steadily. “The very same.”
“You have children, Mr. Willikins?” said Susan, her mind racing. It was one thing to abuse bureaucratic powers for the sake of putting on a good show for the wife; quite another to still be whispering the title of a children's book like a ritual, in the bowels of the world, hundreds of miles from the nearest locatable bovine. And who knew who else had been listening, down there under the earth? She remembered hearing a rumor, years ago, that Vimes had come back from the Koom Valley truce with an extra, a hanger-on, some kind of dwarf demon that had sought unusual heights in clinging to his head. At the time she'd dismissed it as normal Biers talk. In Biers, after a certain hour, someone was always wistfully theorizing that the Patrician was a zombie and that Sacharissa Cripslock used her journalistic abilities to pull literal as well as figurative teeth. People liked to think that the people on top were like them, even if they weren't strictly people. But perhaps there had been truth in it after all.
“Why, no,” said Willikins, “but I do have a number of nephews and nieces. Though I don't mind telling you, miss, that I have always fancied myself a family man.”
“I'm sure you would make a remarkable father,” said Susan, with absolute honesty.
That afternoon she was summoned to an impromptu parent-teacher-nervous-headmistress conference with Madam Frout and Vimes. Vimes had a werewolf captain with him, whether as bodyguard or muscle Susan couldn't tell; she thought the woman's name was Delphine, or something like that. She was standing conspicuously by the door, turning one of Madam Frout's adorable Reward Pens in her hand, and she nodded to Susan as Susan came in.
Vimes was less civil. “Here,” he said, in sudden suspicion, “don't I know you?” Behind him, Madam Frout's introduction died on her lips.
Some people—people who lived unquiet lives—could spot a family resemblance. Susan brushed a hand to her right cheek. “We've never been introduced,” she said calmly. “Commander Vimes, I presume?”
In the privacy of her own thoughts she was grimly triumphant. The darkness, if you were looking for it, ran through his mind like a river. And the strange thing was, it hadn't been there, while he was in the caves, or if it had been there it had looked very different—as diffuse as the pain, and indistinguishable from it. It was as though in the time between then and now he had come to an agreement with his demon, had dug down deep into the bedrock of his own head and seen to it that the waters would flow along a predetermined channel and then opened the gates.
“Oh,” said Vimes, “yes. Sorry. I suppose I'd better—you're Miss Susan, are you? Well,” he said, with grudging concession written all over his face, which had the same brightening effect as graffiti has on granite, “Young Sam thinks very highly of you.”
“Really?” said Susan. “He's only known me two days.”
Vimes raised his eyebrows. “Do you not like people to like you right off the bat?”
“That depends on whether they have good reason to,” said Susan. “I prefer my students to come to justified conclusions, and gather plenty of evidence along the way.”
Vimes smiled. “Well, as it happens, I agree totally,” he said. “The last person Sam took such a shine to was an arsonist, although he did know a great deal about the practical applications of dung, especially in its explosive capacity. Sam is very interested in dung. Do you have anything in your lesson plan about the muckier end of life?”
“We do a unit on digestion in the spring,” said Susan, ignoring Madam Frout's splutter.
“Excellent. Then all that remains is to ask you a few questions about security.”
A few questions about security turned out to be an interrogation on subjects ranging from access points to the building to Susan's personal feelings on terrorism. At this point, to Susan's surprise, Madam Frout intervened. “Your Grace,” she said emphatically, wringing her hands under her lace collar. Unfortunately this was most coherent part of her protest: the rest came out in apoplectic fragments. Susan heard “children”, “little minds”, and “innocence not to be disrupted by an atmosphere of fear”. She sighed and made a note to check the gin bottle in Madam Frout's desk after the meeting. By the sound of it, consumption had been on the climb, just in time for the holiday season and all its manifold delights.
“When I was a kid, I liked seeing armed men about,” said Vimes. “Gave me something to aim at.” But at some point over the course of the past few minutes he had relaxed. Not long after that he made his excuses. Susan got the impression the whole session had been by way of job interview, and decided to be grateful it hadn't been conducted in the Watch house on some trumped up charge instead. Vimes caught her eye, a trace of humor in his glance, and she was reminded, suddenly, of Sybil.
“Nice meeting you, Miss Susan,” he said. “Tell your grandfather I said hi.”
At the door, possibly-Delphine had turned poker-faced. Madam Frout's wintry eyes flicked from face to face—Susan imagined she was rather regretting not having put on her glasses for this. “Thank you, Commander,” Susan said, after a moment. “I'm sure he'll remember you.”
They shook hands. The Watchmen swept out.
“What was that all about,” Madam Frout began, and Susan snapped her fingers. “Pax,” she said, to the open-mouthed and frozen Frout. She stood up and went to the drawer with the gin in it. It was not, after all, that close to empty, but next to the bottle was a letter, which turned out to be from Madam Frout's sister, well-worn from nervous handling. Susan didn't read it. She closed the door and felt an unfamiliar twinge of guilt, or more pertinently of regret; she unstopped time with a loose, soundless gesture, and Madam Frout's weak eyes tracked the motion of her hand.
The werewolf captain showed up at Biers just as the sun was setting, and Susan, without preamble, took the seat across from her at her table. Her quarry looked at her with the expression of someone unused to being approached in the middle of drinking alone—doubly so, Susan imagined, in her case, since she was both a copper and a part-time quadruped, and therefore well-defended by reputation against all but the most suicidal pick up artists. “You,” she greeted Susan.
“Yes,” said Susan, “me.” Now that they were face to face she was reminded that the captain preferred to go by Angua, eschewing her given name along with her family ties and native country. Susan, thinking of golden wheat under a burnt-black sky, could relate. And because she could relate she didn't make any effort to accommodate Angua's half-hearted pretense that there was any doubt as to what she was there for. Empathy and sympathy were very distant cousins, in Susan's vision of the world.
“I'm not sure how he knew,” said Angua, finally. “But I think it was the Summoning Dark. It tells him things, sometimes. Lets him see stuff.”
“Does he know you know that?” said Susan.
“Oh, yeah,” said Angua. “He told us right out the gate—it was two years ago, I think, when he realized what was going on, and then he took Carrot and me aside and said he thought he had the hang of things but if he ever started acting weird during a meeting it was because there was an immortal demon that was likely as not just a figment of his imagination living in his skull.”
She took a long pull of her beer. Susan watched her fingers clutch the glass a little too tightly. It was three days to full moon, of course.
“He doesn't spend much time alone anymore,” said Angua.
“Ah. Thus your presence in today's meeting...?”
“Yes.” Angua stared at the beer with fixed interest. The beer, as was usual with Igor's drinks, stared back. It was probably a goat eye. Susan didn't imagine Igor would perform any dangerous substitutions on a mixture intended for a member of the City Watch, even if that member was marginally more likely to one day go on carnivorous rampage than most of her coworkers. Especially if.
“So you're a safeguard?” she said delicately.
“A witness,” said Angua, “kind of. Plus he thinks I have experience with this sort of thing, on account of my unique gifts.”
“Do you not?”
“Hells, no. You ask him how he defeated the Summoning Dark in the first place sometime—or ask one of the Kings, they talk more about it. They say he won because he had another demon inside him, which—”
“Fought the Summoning Dark in a brutal struggle for demonic dominance?” said Susan.
“No,” said Angua. “They say he has a tiny watchman inside him who keeps the demon under locks, and that was what locked up the Summoning Dark. No, I don't understand it either.”
She looked at Susan with clear amber eyes, like the eyes of a dog by firelight. “But you're not really worried about the Commander, are you,” she said.
“He's a grown man,” said Susan. “Or a living Uberwaldian doll, possibly, but either way, he's not my responsibility.”
“You think Young Sam is in danger?” said Angua. Her tone was deceptively light.
“Actually,” said Susan, “I think he's more than usually well defended.”
She held Angua's stare. “Right,” said Angua, seeming to come to a decision, and she bought Susan a cocktail, which was novel. Susan checked the blackboard: in a rare simultaneous triumph for the forces of innuendo and the forces of naming your drinks after thematic torture devices, Igor had called it Merry Fucking Hogswatch.
She acquired a copy of Where's My Cow from the school's library, where it was featured as a favorite of teachers who had never left the city and/or set foot on a farm everywhere. The librarian, a woman who wore glasses on a ribbon and was said to keep illegal frogs in the back storage space, gave her an odd look while stamping the due date. Miss Susan, it was well known, did not set foot in Frout Academy's various Resource Rooms, and enjoyed a relationship of bidirectional contempt with the supply mistresses (who resented her independently stocked Stationary Closet and also wondered where she was getting all those damn stars). But Miss Susan was on a mission. Somewhere along the way it had become a mission to satisfy her own curiosity and lay her doubts to rest, but it was still a mission, and Where's My Cow was the last piece to the puzzle.
She read it at home, with a cup of tea to brace herself against the watery grey light of the window. It was very nearly the shortest day of the year, and there were limits to even her tolerance for the bleakness of the sky. Well, no, there weren't, but one had to put up a good show. It was perhaps telling that Susan sometimes thought about her audience in a locked room with only some rather pink illustrations for company; but then, it was quite good tea.
She read the book from cover to cover.
Sam had seen her with it at the end of the day: he tended to linger, and she'd pulled it out from under her desk rather thoughtlessly as he was beatifically examining the droppings that had accumulated in Henry VIII the Hamster's cage. He turned around just as she was putting it in her bag. “That's not my favorite book any more,” he said, with the patient self-absorption of the young and precocious.
“I know,” said Susan, with one eye on the shimmering faultlines that haloed his outline.
“My favorite book is The World of Poo.”
“I know that, too,” said Susan, flickering a smile. At least Madam Frout couldn't hold Sam's reading abilities against her: they were inappropriately well-developed on arrival. So far most of his education in Susan's class had been on more abstract lines, like, 'what to do when you've been taken to Fourecks on a field trip and one of your new friends has just discovered the boomerang' (duck), 'what to do when you're in the sightlines of an Agatean archer' (duck), and 'what's the worst thing that can happen to you while you're visiting an actual farm' (goose). Sam was a natural ducker and a passable hand at running screaming across the 11th century countryside with an angry waterfowl attached to his pants, qualities Susan thought probably ran in the family. Certainly he took to time travel with all the grace of a boy who owed his existence to it.
The fact was that she did, after all, quite like Sam, despite what she had told his father about quick judgments, and at the end of the day she was rather relieved that it seemed as though he was going to be preserved indefinitely by the contortions of history and sheer unholy willpower. He had good taste in books, for one thing: Miss Felicity Beedle, unlike the more esteemed but less wealthy author of Where's My Cow, had definitely been on a farm at some point in her life, and come away with softer, suppler boots than she'd started out with. Susan felt a certain professional admiration. And if part of her still thought, it doesn't make any sense, well, humanity was a hard habit to break.
She read the book again. It was in a simple call-and-answer format, one not coincidentally found in prayers and sermons all around the Disc. There was, Susan supposed, a trite but joyful momentum to be found in the rhythmic pattern of failure; as men believed the harder every time their prayers for hard cash went unanswered, so did the youthful reader grow elated with each successive mistaken identity. More importantly, it was the kind of thing that could put a hook in reality, and did. Did it all the time.
She thought of Vimes, on the day of his son's birth, catapulted back in time to the one part of history he was more than equipped to navigate. A place where he understood everything that was happening before it happened, where he could practically hear the rumblings of the future as it rolled down to crush the dirty, ignorant past with waves of bloodier dirt and ignorance. She would have wondered what it felt like, to be aware of the scope of events moment by moment in a way most humans never could be, except she didn't need to.
When she finished the book for a third time, she heard, as if from far away, a soft glittering schwing. The world was remembering how it had been shaped.
She closed the book.
There was a knock on the door. Susan, who wasn't expecting anyone, and definitely not anyone who needed to knock, paused before answering. Her tea had developed a horrible film. Well, some humans did approach her unexpectedly—parents, for example, and other teachers looking for a quiet place to have a nervous breakdown and a revelation that they were always meant to be an artist, to be followed soon after by their triumphant reunion with a wealthy former beau they had thought long dead. Despite Susan's best efforts, this last scenario unfolded regularly. She usually settled for feeding them biscuits until they stopped monologuing, saying something unkind in the tone of voice specially reserved for people giving hard-hitting but profound advice in an otherwise lighthearted romantic comedy, and then ushering them out the door before the fact that she'd just called their supposedly-dead beloved a limpet sank in. This time, if this was one of those times, she planned to be rather more brusque.
Instead she received a faceful of chloroform on opening the door.
Well, kind of. Actually, first someone threw an arm around her neck, to drag her down to chloroforming-level. Only then did they stick the damp and stinking rag under her nose. Susan remained bent over for a long moment, because she liked to think that she was a more measured and contemplative person now than she had been ten years ago; then she straightened, lifting her would-be attacker halfway off his sandalled feet before he made the wise decision and removed his arm, probably saving it in the process from a new career as a very short muff.
“Chloroform only works on me if I feel like being chloroformed,” Susan told him, a little nasally.
“Thought that might be the case. Thought so. But is it not written, 'You never know till you try'?” said Lu-Tze.
Considering that the one time she'd been forced to have a sincere conversation with such a truth-seeker, the happy recipient of her insights had gone on to drown herself in a giant transuniversal vat of chocolate, the deterrence represented by Susan's best efforts should not be underestimated.
Technically an abbreviation of chloroformis et occidi, the Old Latatian for 'make like a tree and fall over'.
Against her worse judgment, Susan ended up inviting him in. He looked ineffably younger than the last time she'd seen him, perhaps because he wasn't coming fresh from getting his head cut off; and he slurped down the tea she offered him with the terrible enthusiasm only possible in a man raised to expect yak butter in his hot beverages. “Sorry about this,” he said, both encompassing the scheme of 'abduct Death's granddaughter' and separating it from himself with a gesture. “It's just, well, it's a noble tradition, y'see.”
“Really,” said Susan. “Wen drugged his first acolytes?”
“No-o,” said Lu-Tze, apparently considering this. “He was more hit 'em with truth and beauty type. Plus, of course, the health plan is—”
Susan stared at him.
“—phenomenal,” he concluded. “Ah. You meant, what kind of wise old mentor type uses chemicals do get things done, did you? You perhaps doubt history's need for the odd kidnapping?”
Susan rested her chin on her hand.
Lu-Tze squirmed a bit. “We like getting people to secret temples before we hit them with exposition. Make sure we have our props on hand, style of thing.”
“I see,” said Susan. She paused as something struck her. “You were the monk the Watch thought was trying to kidnap Young Sam!”
“And it would have worked, too, if it hadn't been for them and their little dog,” said Lu-Tze, radiating injured sensibilities.
“What, Captain Angua?”
“Said his name was Gaspode,” said Lu-Tze, to Susan's mystification.
“But why were you trying to snatch him in the first place?”
“Same reason as you've been reading up on his parents, miss, except some of us didn't get him dropped in our laps for study,” said Lu-Tze.
Susan thought about this. “That was this summer,” she said, eventually. “And you haven't tried since, right?”
Lu-Tze looked at her over the top of his mug, and nodded.
“So you've found whatever you were looking for.”
Lu-Tze sat in silence for some time. Susan wondered how long it'd been since he'd last attended to his mountains. He said, “You're sure you wouldn't rather do this in the city temple? We have a very nice rock garden, very tranquil, also some charming painted screens for when we need to do an illustrative montage and a remarkable view of the pawn shop.”
“No,” said Susan, “thank you. I have essays to grade. Let's just exchange information and be done, shall we?”
Lu-Tze sighed. “It just won't be the same without gravel. Not that this isn't very nice linoleum,” he said, glancing down at her kitchen floor with a professional eye. “Very well swept.”
Susan, who was handy with any long stick if what you wanted her to do was swing it at something, down to and including a pile of dust, said nothing. Her hair had begun to unwind, and only as it did so did Susan realize that for days now it had been tensely drawn. There was a cloudy feeling all over her scalp, as though the errant follicles were giving way to cool mist.
“I s'pose,” said Lu-Tze, “I felt responsible. I mean, the man got jarred half-a-lifetime loose by what we did, and then there was the whole business of him pretending to be Keel, not that that wasn't his own damn fault, bringing a pet murderer along. What did he expect? But I thought I might as well check up on him, having accrued a bit of overdue holiday time, so to speak, and when I found out about the boy—”
“Why didn't you tell Lobsang?” Susan interrupted.
“Why didn't you?” countered Lu-Tze.
“I did,” said Susan. “This Tuesday. If I hadn't I wouldn't have found out about Vimes' little excursion into the past at all.”
“Hm,” said Lu-Tze, gruffly. “It's a sad day when a History Monk has to resort to telling Time, my girl! No, I wasn't going to bother him—I already knew the specs of the case, you could say, and I was happy to do a bit of digging—”
He proceeded to tell her the story that she had, for the most part, worked out herself, albeit with fewer exploding prayer wheels along the way. Mostly, it was the story of a man who loved his son. It was also the story of his highly-developed and specific terror of betraying that love, and his faith in the power of barnyard noises at 6 o' clock daily to ensure that he stayed a good father. And, well—belief rarely moved mountains all in a go, but an infant it could just about manage. There is a human predisposition to think of the difference between life and death as so large and terrible and world-altering that bridging it is beyond the reach of men, or at least men not equipped with really big lightning rods; but the fact is that if you look at it in terms of sheer mass, a baby's heart is a small thing, and easy enough to jiggle.
Plus there was the fact that the person doing the believing had the strength of conviction of about three people, two of them ancient and evil. “Though I imagine,” said Lu-Tze, “that by now the lad's got a bit of momentum, and no longer requires what you might call active worship.”
“Via speciesist children's book,” she muttered, and shook her head. “It doesn't seem fair,” she said.
Lu-Tze's face was unreadable. “It's not fair,” he said. “Many things aren't, in my not inconsiderable experience.”
Susan frowned. “I only meant—how many people get the universe bending over backward to let them save their kids?”
“The universe didn't bend for him,” said Lu-Tze, his bony hands coming up to cup his mug. “You were there. You saw the clock break. And you should have seen Vimes on his trip out to history—it ain't a matter of getting what you want or not getting it, you know. People just do things, one after the other. Sometimes damn stupid things involving the memorization of rhymes about beef, at that.”
Steam burst in a belated puff from his milk-lightened tea, borne up by breath.
“Anyway,” said Lu-Tze, “who's to say as the world shouldn't accommodate people, when it can? It's bent more than once or twice for you.”
Although she always felt a little cheated after sweeping up the ashes—there was that nagging sense that something essential had happened in the wrong order. Susan would never have admitted to considering that the reduction of grown men to ash was part of her proper repertoire, but the thought did bubble up sometimes, late at night and alone with the ghosts of the cockroaches.
“So that's it,” Susan told Lobsang, that night when he came to visit her. She had not yet turned on the lamps, but when he appeared they burned for him, the glow filling the room like watered gold. Susan had out a bottle of wine which had fresh memories of having been coffee, and she was drinking with the steady intensity of someone who did not do it often, but who nevertheless had the tolerance of a dehydrated sponge. Her fingers rested carefully on the stem of her glass. Lobsang, barely solid and still seeing through walls, thought they looked rather like bones. “The only reason he came and confirmed my deductions was to stop me prying. A job like that, he said, doesn't stand up to much observation. For is it not written, 'It will fracture spacetime if you pick at it?'”
“Did he say that?” said Lobsang. “He's branching out.”
“Hmm,” said Susan, and sipped her vintage. There was a quantum aftertaste lingering from its impromptu transformation, and she sucked in one cheek, her expression very like the one she used after nougat. “Do you want some?” she asked, noticing the direction of his glance.
Lobsang said no. To him, he said, there were even odds of any wine tasting like grape juice, or vinegar. “I prefer cherries, when I can get them.”
That made Susan smile. “Does that mean you actually like prunes?” she said, and when he inclined his head noncommittally she shook her head in wonder. “Let's say,” said Lobsang, “that when eating a prune I still have to watch out for the stone.”
They were quiet for a bit. Susan tangled her hand in Lobsang's with a schoolteacher's precision of grip—tight enough to prevent wandering off, that is, but loose enough to avoid stickiness transference. Lobsang hadn't been a jammy-handed kid, that being the sort of thing could put a really unpleasant twist on a bit of legal pickpocketing, but he respected her expertise. However unnecessary.
“So,” he said. “Happy ending?”
Susan tipped her head back to stare at the ceiling. “Yes,” she said, “I suppose so.” Her hair fanned out over the back of the couch and her shoulders like snow on the side of a mountain.
“Why only suppose?”
Her mouth twisted like a hanged man on a windy day. “It's just a little anticlimactic,” she said, in a cool, self-deprecating tone he remembered from their first dates, when she was still refinding her footing in the aftermath of the Auditors' last great attempt.
“Maybe it's not over yet,” offered Lobsang, “and it's all leading up to an important lesson about the meaning of Hogswatch.”
Susan snorted. “I hate those,” she said, but absently. “You may be right; it's been ten years since the last one, I'm probably due for it. I hope there are fewer pigs,” she added, to Lobsang's puzzlement.
“How's work been, otherwise?” he said, hoping to lead her to happier topics. She gave him a look which suggested she knew exactly what he was playing at, and was only going along with it because she was a little drunk and still imagining, with old horror, that there might be a wild boar hidden in the shadows of her living room.
“Good,” she said. “We had a delivery of seasonal worksheets—every teacher gets a stack—and I taught the class how to construct an aerodynamically sound paper missile.”
Lobsang laughed, harder than he meant to, and after a skeptical pause Susan laughed with him, softly. She was so human, he thought in surprise, and moreso every day. Sometimes he missed Unity, with an ache that couldn't be soothed by being one with the infinite, or stealing minutes from catfish, or chocolates with cherry liqueur centers; but here and now the sting only made him gladder to be sitting in a house that traversed time along one axis, next to someone who had a long commute between personhood and home and who nevertheless liked her work. He'd teased her once about her affectations—teaching only one class, in one school, when even if she wanted to act in the realm of mortals she could still have done much more than she did to revolutionize primary education—and she'd replied, tartly, Remind me who of us is wearing the sweeper's robe?
He poured himself a little wine after all. It tasted like water, and sunlight, and raw vines in the earth. Also a little bit like quantum, sadly. “I do wonder,” said Susan, watching him with deft tenderness. “Are we changing? You wouldn't think we could.”
“Not yet,” said Lobsang—which everyone knows means I love you, in the mouth of Time.
Time knows everything, but everything gets hazy around the world of children's drawings and the assassins of belief and men who can traverse the Disc in no time at all. Besides, one does not just ask about another personification's hogpower.
On Octeday, Lady Sybil invited Susan over for brunch. There were two days left of the fall term, although in practice she'd already lost half her students to early vacations. The Vimeses didn't seem like the holidaying type, though. They were ingrained into the city like a rock in a shoe, and Susan expected to see Sam in class come the new week.
She accepted the invitation, and arrived five minutes early. To her surprise, she was sent back to the kitchen she'd already visited, where Lady Sybil was frying something gruesome in a pan the size of an atlas. “Your Grace,” said Susan politely.
Lady Sybil glanced back over her shoulder and smiled. “No need to stand on formality, I think,” she said. “After all, we're all Duchesses here.”
Which was Susan's first clue that this was not merely a more subtle version of the vetting Vimes had given her. Possibly all it meant was that this was a less subtle vetting, but Susan wasn't betting on it.
“I don't usually go by that title,” she said.
“I know,” said Lady Sybil, and handed her a plate laden with eggs that would have done Albert proud. They bubbled under Susan's gaze like magma with ambitions of one day becoming lava, and Susan felt her heart shrivel a little in anticipation of burn. She helped herself anyway, on the basis that at least it wasn't cocoa with lard in. “I met your parents once or twice, you know. I'm sure they would have approved of what you've done for the democratization of Sto Helit.”
Susan's fork paused mid-ooze. “I'm afraid I don't—” she began, and then caught Sybil's eye. There was a knowing little silence.
“Lady Sybil,” she said, setting the plate down. “What did you bring me here to talk about?”
“Oh, I don't think you're in the habit of being brought places, are you?” said Sybil. “What did you come here to talk about?”
And so saying she leaned back against the counter, which was no slight endeavor for a woman of Sybil's prepossessing dimensions. Susan looked around at the enormous, greasy kitchen, empty but for the two of them and, inevitably, full of peep-holes for the staff, and said, “Somewhere more private, perhaps?”
A beat, and Sybil nodded. She led Susan up to a light, airy gallery with a very well-reinforced floor. There were portraits on the walls, and hooks for weapons that someone had cleared out a long time ago, except for, at the end of the hall, an undecorated axe in the Copperhead style, its edge alive with sun. “Well?” said Sybil, standing in front of the looming oils-and-pastels of her ancestors. There was something to be said for a lineage scripted all in one room: the rhyming features of generation after generation of Ramkin like watching a moment replay itself, and noticing something different each time.
Susan told her. She hadn't actually come meaning to, and she thought Lu-Tze would probably have disapproved, but there was some part of her that still believed that if a family was going to reap the profits of a kink in fate, they should understand what they had escaped. Normally, she didn't share the results of her pet investigations with ordinary people, but the Vimeses had super-orned demons and roped in help from across decades in their time of need. They could take it. Aside from which, alone in a room with a thousand years of aristocratic breeding and expectant looks, there was hardly anything even Susan could do but speak.
When she was finished she thought she might have to instruct Sybil to forget it after all; in a word, Sybil's expression was complicated. But when she spoke it was only to say, “I did wonder. There was a time—we went to Koom Valley, and Sam and the other watchmen had gone underground... He didn't make it back that night, to read, and at first Young Sam was beside himself. Wretched, you know. But then he stopped crying and started saying the words, like he was hearing them from miles and miles away. It was very odd. When it was all over and Mr. Shine had explained certain things to me, I assumed it was because, well—”
“The psychic shadow-monster in your husband's brain was broadcasting his thoughts?” said Susan helpfully.
“Just so,” said Sybil. “But it never did anything else like that. Mostly it made him testy. If it was only a question of, of resolution, though...” She made a delicate hand gesture, as if to say, 'what's sixteen miles of caves and dirt compared to force of habit?'
What indeed. “And this doesn't worry you?” said Susan, unable to restrain herself now that she had begun. “That just like that, your husband changed the world?”
Sybil made no immediate reply. Instead she crossed to the end of the hall in a few quick strides and took the axe off its hook. Susan, who had an eye for an edge and had absolutely no illusions about the axe's ornamental qualities, took an unconscious step back, but Sybil merely held it, the blade turned up towards the air between them.
“This was a gift from the Low King,” she said. “He had a nice little parable to go along with it, relevant to our concerns at the time—something about, oh, someday this will be the axe of someone's grandfather, no matter how much it has changed since that grandfather made the darkness part of himself. Because although each piece may be replaced, the axe will remain.”
Susan stared at her. “Has anyone ever told you,” she said, “that your family has altogether too many running metaphors?”
Sybil grinned. “No, Susan, they have not, but only because they aren't paying attention. We keep them in the attic along with the rest of the goods.” She hefted the axe lightly in her hands. “When Doctor Lawn got me and Sam through delivery, he also won himself the rights to ten acres of Goosegate and a hundred and sixty thousand dollars, and with that money and that land he set up the Lady Sybil Free Hospital, you may have heard of it? It is the first of its kind and it saves, or at least does not actually murder, pardon my Klatchian, dozens of patients every day. No one reads them bedtime stories or prays at their altar, I daresay, so I must conclude that either in every version of history my husband has a remarkable memory for doctors he met once behind barricades, or else the world is more forgiving than you suppose.”
“That's a very optimistic take,” said Susan, diplomatic as only a woman short an ancestral weapon can be.
“No,” said Sybil, “it isn't, really. I'm sure you're right about the particulars. But while I'm grateful, I hope, for my good fortune, I'm not interested in learning to be afraid.”
She was monumental in the shafting sunlight that filtered down to them, penetrating windows so high up that Susan understood them more as thought than fact. Her voice was firm, in the way that rock is firm. She spoke not like a getter of secondhand religion but like an engineer, as though she was measuring the unfeeling landscape with an astrolabe and a pencil behind her ear and lots and lots of math, finding a distance between herself and the sky.
Susan was a teacher. “Reasonable caution is not the same as fear,” she said, aware that she was herself rapidly slipping from the summits of pedagogy to the weirdly shaped foothills of pedantry. Sybil gave her a kind look.
“I know,” she said. “And caution is important. That's why I campaigned to get him into your class, after all. It's true what they say on the brochure—teachers at Frout Academy really do care!”
Susan's mouth opened, and opened, and shut. “I think we understand each other perfectly,” she said, although she didn't. She wanted something, she thought suddenly, and she had forgotten its name. In her mind's eye a burning carriage wheel rolled away from the wreckage, while someone helpless observed atop the cliff, sitting astride a pale horse outside its proper time. What was it that had made her so certain that Sybil needed to be shown the danger, anyway? What did it matter how close or far she had come to loss, if after all it had been prevented?
“Yes, indeed,” said the Duchess. “Thank you for coming, Miss Susan.” And she put the axe away.
Not to be confused with the kinks of Fate, who likes bondage and scissorplay and knows some really obscure uses for golden thread.
Like suborning, except the super-ornee is forced to perform lawful acts and contribute to the community on its day off.
For Sybil, 'pardon my Klatchian' was less an apology for swearing than it was a state of mind.
The last day of term is an occasion for festivity across the multiverse, and Susan's classroom was no exception. Paper snowflakes (and accompanying geometry lessons) hung on all four walls, and the Hogfather himself had made an appearance in one of his woadier guises, impressing everyone with his blueness, his smelliness, and his imitation of 'Man Choking On An Uncooked Bean In Order To Clarify The Succession'.
At her desk, Susan was thinking about her parents. They had celebrated Hogswatch, in a determined kind of way, making sure to buy her satisfying presents and a minimum of socks, and explaining to her in words she'd been able to understand that the Hogfather her schoolmates believed in was a comforting myth. She'd had no complaints, except about her mother's tendency to make otherwise unobjectionable toys fuzzy and pink. If she'd missed the grandfather who had cast a laddered shadow on her earliest holidays, she didn't remember it now.
She had a picture in her head of her father kneeling under the tree to steady the base. He'd been arguing with her mother, and there was color on his high cheekbones, the skinny face pale except for where blood rose under the skin. The lines that marked where Death had once struck him stood out like letters, printed neatly on the page of his cheek.
Young Sam came to turn in his essay. “Thank you,” said Susan, and gave him a quick once-over with her business eye. The cracks were still there, a blue-white corona around his compact outline; Susan half-expected them to be less noticeable now than when she'd met him, but if anything they seemed to have brightened with his mood. On the other hand, she reflected, watching as he bounced back to his enormous bodyguard's side, perhaps it wasn't so strange that the fissures should remain, long after reality had grown resigned to him. With Sergeant Dorfl there, it was hard to miss the fact that sometimes cracks could be a guarantee of movement, and proof of resurrection.
All of which made her feel more than a little silly. She'd enjoyed figuring it out, though—had liked snooping around the footprints of the accidental occult and comparing notes with the sweeper. It was unfortunate, but there you had it. Even sensible people could relish a little light sleuthing. And there was something to be said for not being the only person who could save the day, or analyze the day six years past the point when it had been effectively and bizarrely saved.
The students were packing up their desks. When the last of them had trickled out the door, she looked around at her empty classroom and turned off the lights. At four p.m. it was already twilight in the streets beyond the window, snow falling through a density of blue gloom, and she paused to put on her coat for the look of the thing before heading out into the hall.
She passed Madam Frout's office on her way down to the exit. "Happy Hogswatch, Susan," called Madam Frout, and without turning Susan said, "Happy Hogswatch," and walked out into the night.
Once free, she stopped and stood a while under drifting white flakes. Carts and tourists passed her by as though she wasn't there, although she was making no particular effort to be inconspicuous. She was thinking.
She'd once told herself that families were things that existed mainly in times of need—in the case of her family, times of apocalypse, because that was when they needed each other. They certainly weren't the kind of beings who could do lunch on alternate weekends, or spend a day in one another's company just for confirmation that they both still existed, against all odds, in spite of history.
But the world was always ending somewhere. That was true, too.
And in the immediate future, which is vaster and less fragile than anyone thinks...
There was a knock on Death's door.
Death was used to this: there was no shortage of overliteral geriatrics on the Disc, and some of them could even read a map. But when Albert answered, he heard none of the usual kerfuffle of elderly voices demanding to see the Reaper, and Albert's also elderly but more colorful response. Instead, Albert said, “Oh, it's you, is it?” And there was a sound of shoes being wiped on the mat.
Death put down his pen.
“Hi,” said Susan, spanning the infinite space between the door and his desk in a single step. “Working late?”
IS THAT A WITTICISM? said Death uncertainly.
“Could be,” said Susan. She had a package under one arm. With an air of studied nonchalance, she placed it in front of him, her hands lingering a little on the ribbon. The wrapping was bulky enough that it might have been anything from a guitar to a back-scratcher, but in fact when he removed the paper he found a hatchet nestled in a black-lined box. The blade gleamed against its velvet backing like the bare line of sunrise. In the scrolling of its handle and the quality of its steel it echoed the make of both his scythe and his sword, although compared to them it was as dull as a penny that had been left in a river for millennia to rust.
That could be changed, of course.
“I got it from Mrs. Ogg's son,” said Susan. “You recommended his work to me once, and, well...”
BUT WHAT IS IT? said Death, with an imprecision that suggested his brow would have been furrowing if it hadn't been solid bone. As carefully as if it was a kitten, he lifted it out of its wrappings and tilted it under the lamp.
In the event, Susan's smile was brilliant.
“It's the axe of my grandfather,” she said.
In fact Death had been forced to order a door made specifically to magnify the sound of even the weakest knocking, after a number of embarrassing incidents in which ancients whose wrist strength didn't match their impatience ended up keeling over there on the doorstep before Albert noticed the noise. This, besides making for a nasty clean-up job, was exactly the sort of thing that made his superiors check the "PARADOX-PRONE" box on his annual review.
It probably wasn't a back-scratcher.